Sept. 20, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
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Blame for Health Care Law Failure Lies With Cohen | Commentary

Gary Cohen has got to go. Mr. Cohen, more than anyone else, is responsible for the failed launch of the president’s health care law. Unfortunately, he is protected by his obscurity and hidden by his anonymity.

During the ongoing display of the failure of the federally run health care website, Americans have rightfully asked a lot of questions. One of the most common is — who was in charge of this mess and who will be held responsible? Most of the people involved in the website’s construction have reported that seemingly no one was in charge and that this lack of leadership was the main reason for the failure of the project. What most of these contractor accounts leave out is that there is someone who was supposed to be in charge: Gary Cohen.

Not only did Cohen fail in that task, but he misled Congress and the American people throughout the process — that’s why I called for his resignation last week.

Cohen is the director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, a little known subsidiary of the Department of Health and Human Services. He has a very important job: implementing the insurance provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Whenever a project failure is widely and openly cited for a lack of leadership and coordination, it should go without saying that the person in charge of leading the coordinating effort has clearly failed at their job.

Cohen and his lack of leadership are responsible for the failure of the exchanges last month. Not only has Cohen failed at his job, but he has repeatedly — knowingly or not — misled Congress and the American people.

In April, Cohen came before the Energy and Commerce Committee where I asked him about the idea of narrowing the scope of the Affordable Care Act. I specifically asked whether there were conversations occurring to limit or reduce the scope of the ACA to make it easier to implement. He flatly told me “No. We intend to implement fully the Affordable Care Act.”

A little more than two months later, major de-scoping of the ACA was announced when it was revealed that the employer mandate and income verification, among other things, would be delayed for at least a year.

Major policy changes of this nature weren’t sudden last-minute decisions; they required months of discussion and planning. Either Cohen purposefully lied to Congress about these discussions, or he was doing such a poor job that he wasn’t even included in the discussions.

On the eve of the website going live, Cohen testified once again before Energy and Commerce and again what he said turned out to be completely inaccurate. On Sept. 19, just 13 days before the start of the Affordable Care Act, I asked Cohen a simple question: “Will the enrollment process be ready Oct. 1 of this year?” He responded by saying:

“Consumers will be able to go online, they will be able to get a determination of what tax subsidies they are eligible for, they will be able to look at the plans that are available where they live, they will be able to see the premium net of subsidy that they would have to pay, and they will be able to choose a plan and get enrolled in coverage beginning October 1st.”

We now know that not a single detail of that statement was true, and if Mr. Cohen was even halfway involved in the creation of the sites, he would have known that. Sitting there, 13 days before the launch of the website, Cohen should have known that there had been no complete “end to end” test of the site.

If he was doing his job correctly, he knew that the more limited tests that were conducted on the site had failed. And that his contractors had been asking for more testing for months and were warning him that the system was not ready.

In making this statement, either Cohen decided to overtly lie to Congress, or he is so inept at his job that he doesn’t know the basic facts about which he is testifying. Either scenario is absolutely unacceptable.

Last week, when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified at the committee, I asked if she was ready to call for the resignation of Gary Cohen. She dismissed my question with a brusque, “No”.

If gross incompetence or overt lies aren’t enough to get Secretary Sebelius to seriously consider my question, then what is going to?

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, M.D., is a Republican from Texas.

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